Jack Absolute Flies Again

18/10/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Daytime cinema always feels like playing hooky. A sign that – for today – fun has priority. And NT Live screenings have the same ‘getting away with something’ vibe. I’m watching a play in London, but – shhh, whisper it – I haven’t left Edinburgh. So this afternoon’s indulgence, Jack Absolute Flies Again, is the double whammy: a National Theatre production at lunch time on a Tuesday! And in our favourite picture house too…

Based on Sheridan’s The Rivals, Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s production exemplifies ‘rollicking’. It’s a silly, frothy, feelgood piece of theatre – and I absolutely love it.

The action has moved from the late 18th century to the early 20th – specifically to World War 2 – and Malaprop Mansion has been requisitioned by the RAF. The titular Jack (Laurie Davidson) is a pilot, stationed in the grounds. He’s in love with fellow pilot, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson), who just happens to live in the mansion with her aunt, Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin). Lydia, however, is infatuated with northern mechanic, Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher), who, in turn, has a thing for Lydia’s maid, Lucy (Kerry Howard). Throw in a couple of other pilots vying for Lydia’s attention, a jealous fiancé and the ever-present spectre of death (these are military people, after all), not to mention Mrs Malaprop’s attraction to Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), and you’ve got quite the heady mix…

This comedy of errors is beautifully handled, all knowing nods to the audience, and perfectly executed groan-out-loud jokes. Sure, we can see the punchlines coming from cruising height, but that’s the point: the laughs are garnered in the gap, the moment when we know what’s coming before it lands. Quentin is particularly funny, clearly relishing the Malapropisms that litter her speech. They are so plentiful they make Sheridan look positively restrained, but their abundance works, again prompting us to pre-empt what she might say (Chekhov’s clematis, if you will). Howard also proves to have that comic edge, and I like her character’s frequent references to the theatricality of the piece, reminding the audience of the genre and what they ought to expect.

The set is delightful: all bucolic beauty and architectural elegance. Its chocolate box design suits the tone of the piece, and I especially like the doll’s house effect, when the mansion opens to reveal the rooms within. Ironically, the only things that don’t translate well to the cinema are, well, the cinematic sequences. I’m sure they’re impactful in the vast Olivier auditorium, but they are diminished by the live-screening process.

The ending is something of a shock, deliberately jarring. I won’t go into any detail (no spoilers here), but – on reflection – I think it works. It’s a brave choice, but probably the only one that makes sense, given the context. It feels tonally different from the rest of the piece, but I guess that’s the point. We all plod along, don’t we, dealing with the minutiae while the big stuff happens around us. Until…

There are a few more ‘encore’ screenings of Jack Absolute over the next month or so. If you’re in need of a laugh, take advantage of NT Live and give your local cinema a much-needed boost at the same time. You won’t regret it.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

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